Review: Richard III at Temple Church

Antic Disposition certainly know how to make a good first impression. Temple Church, their home for the next two weeks, is another majestic, beautiful and powerfully historic setting for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – and brings to an end their most recent tour of some of the UK’s most stunning cathedrals.

Fortunately, the awe-inspiring venue is more than matched by the quality of the show, which is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Based on the probably completely untrue history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the play recounts his bloody path to the throne as he gradually eliminates every other heir in his way, before being defeated at Bosworth Field by the future King Henry VII.

This modern interpretation reimagines the royal family and their entourage as well-heeled city types, and even without the little topical details – which include a comedy mayor called Boris, and a competitive handshake Donald Trump would be proud of – the point being made is clear. Our leaders may no longer send each other to the executioner’s block, but the ruthlessness of those who seek power for their own ends is just as dangerous today as it was 500 years ago.

At the head of a fantastic cast is Toby Manley as the murderous monarch, in a performance so charming that it’s easy to see how he keeps getting his way. Watching him, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock; he plays his part so well that you can forget how evil he actually is – if not for the occasional furious outbursts that expose the crazed ambition lurking within. And in case that doesn’t do the job, a glance down the aisle reveals a silent army of vengeful ghosts, as each of Richard’s victims rises from the grave to take his or her place and wait for an opportunity to have their revenge.

This simple yet powerfully effective device from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero not only helps keep track of the rising body count, but also contributes to the play’s sense of impending doom as we build towards a spine-tingling climax. And they’re not alone, as Louise Templeton’s Queen Margaret, draped in the flag of her dead husband and son’s royal house, appears regularly on stage like Hamlet’s ghost to ensure justice is done.

Perhaps surprisingly in a play so full of violence, there’s also a lot of humour, in the dramatic, semi-hysterical posturing of Joe Eyre’s Buckingham, who could be mistaken for a radical religious preacher as he makes the speech that secures Richard’s place on the throne. And Robert Nairne’s Catesby, who’s transformed for this production into a no-nonsense security man, enjoys some fun interaction with the audience as he hands out flags for the young princes’ arrival, before smugly presenting the two moody teenagers with an XBox to keep them quiet.

It’s clear from both the production and the directors’ programme notes that there’s a topical subtext to be found in Antic Disposition’s interpretation of Richard III. But this message is applied subtly enough – for the most part – that anyone who simply wants to see an excellent and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s historical play will find themselves more than satisfied. It takes some doing to put together a performance so gripping that it can distract from such an amazing venue – but while the setting certainly adds atmosphere, the true star of this show is the show itself.

Richard III is at Temple Church until 9th September.

Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 29th July.

Review: All Our Children, Jermyn Street Theatre

It was never going to be an easy play to watch. Stephen Unwin makes his debut as a playwright with All Our Children, a chilling expose of the brutal programme that saw Nazi Germany send thousands of disabled children to their deaths, ostensibly to ease the financial burden on the state. Over the course of one day, we see the situation through the eyes of five characters, each with a different perspective – and leave disturbed and shaken by the horrors human beings are capable of inflicting on each other.

The subject matter sounds grim, and it is – not for what we see but rather what we don’t. There are no children in the play; we never leave the comfortable office of Dr Victor Franz (Colin Tierney), chief paediatrician at a children’s clinic near Cologne. But we come to know them, through the pain of a mother who’s lost her son, the remorse of another who’s realised the patients in the clinic are, after all, “just children”, and through the cowardly attempts of a man who once swore to do no harm to justify sending his innocent charges to be murdered.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

It’s this, more than anything, that really sends a chill down the spine. Franz is an experienced and compassionate doctor; he’s often funny, has an obvious affection for his devoted maid Martha (Rebecca Johnson), and dislikes the odious SS man Eric Schmidt (Edward Franklin) who’s there to make sure he toes the line and meets his grotesque quotas. Franz could be quite a likeable guy, in fact, but for the cold, clinical way he reels off the official justifications for his actions. Unlike the fanatical Schmidt, who simply hates the clinic’s patients and everything they represent, it’s obvious from the doctor’s hangdog expression, late night drinking and constant efforts to hide the truth from Martha that he knows full well what he’s doing is wrong. The arrival of David Yelland’s Bishop von Galen (a real historical figure, whose public opposition to the programme was key to its eventual abolition) could hardly be more timely, and his dignified rage in the face of Franz’s cowardice speaks for all of us.

The play is a very personal project for Stephen Unwin, who also directs, and there’s no doubting the passion or anger behind every word – but he resists the urge to preach his views, instead presenting a sensitive and balanced debate from which ultimately it’s the compassionate voices that cry out the loudest. While the men each get their turn to argue the intellectual and moral points of the debate, the two women – both mothers – represent the emotional heart of the play, and it’s their scenes that really drive home the horror of what’s happening. Lucy Speed’s Frau Pabst breaks our hearts as she describes her son with none of the eloquence of the men but a great deal more feeling; she knows Stefan will never have a job or pay tax – but he’s her son and she can’t bring herself to share the view that his is a life not worth living. And Martha’s softly spoken realisation that the patients she used to feel so sorry for are no different to her own three “normal” children has just as much impact as the bishop’s outrage.

Photo credit: Camilla Greenwell

A few slightly artificial sound effects aside, All Our Children is an incredibly effective and thought-provoking piece of theatre, a warning from history that reminds us of our continuing duty to look out for those who need our help, particularly at a time of government cuts and growing intolerance. We may not be in Nazi Germany, and it may not be 1941 – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learnt, or battles to be fought.

All Our Children is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 3rd June.

Review: This Beautiful Future at the Yard Theatre

Guest review by Lucrezia Pollice

“If I could do it again I would…”

Funny, witty and effective. A story about war, love, youth, confusion and choices. A youthful romance arises in the mist of WWII. Two teenagers from diverse paths of life are brought to face intricate questions as they experience love for the first time. The performance is lively, charismatic and charming, with a modernised setting making it evermore relatable and the past more tangible.

The stage is minimal, a round bed, a bowl, water tap, clothes and two karaoke booths. The story episodically shifts slightly forward and backward, but is made very clear to follow. Elodie is a French girl, Otto is a German soldier. They are fighting on opposite sides of the battle. She is 17-years-old and he is 15-years-old. He sees her bathing in a lake, she lets him watch for a while before introducing herself. She’s curious, excited by his gun and asks to touch it, and after some convincing he finally gives in.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos

In an abandoned house they find out about each other after overcoming first embarrassments. The writing is witty and light, but constantly acknowledging the underlining backdrop of the war which has become the norm to them. Their time together is what is most important. They are trying to figure it out and nervously break into pillow and water fights, to then awkwardly start kissing again. Meanwhile, two older counter figures Alwyne Taylor and Paul Haley accompany their telling by singing in the karaoke booths.

It seems like a beautiful coincidence they met… until their beliefs and views come into play. The war seemed to be distant, present in the destruction of bombs. Its consequences are present in the room as Elodie brings back an egg she’s rescued, which it becomes their mission to keep warm. The conflict is far away though, it has nothing to do with them, although it still affects them. Otto is constantly scared, pointing his gun at the floor with extreme terror that someone might find them. Elodie has an epileptic attack on stage; she looks happy and strong but there is something lurking behind them. Soon they discover the war is actually between them.

Photo credit: Richard Lakos

Otto, played by Bradley Hall, interprets the Nazi SS stereotype, with oil-slick blonde hair, a youthful face and grey uniform, boasting his adoration for Hitler. Elodie, played by Hannah Millward, does not agree with Otto’s views, but she is torn as to what to do. She knows the war is over, but Otto is still parading his leader and dreams. The performances are acted with such conviction it makes the choices and actions hard to watch. Can the power of love be so irrational? How could it? But then again, don’t we all do irrational things for the people we love?

Artistic Director Jay Miller does an incredibly brilliant job at finding the right aesthetics; a delicate beauty surrounds the stage. The set is minimal, with a stunning backdrop by Cécile Trémolières, which together with the simplistic but effective lighting and music, creates a powerful aesthetic, all elements perfectly in harmony. Spectators were very engaged around me, perhaps partially for the limited participatory moments or for the slightly bizarre non-binary elements in the representation. An extremely enjoyable evening, I highly recommend it.

This Beautiful Future is at The Yard Theatre until 20th May.

Review: Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways at The Cruising Association, Limehouse

Before last night, my only knowledge of the boating world came from a long ago family holiday on the Norfolk Broads (and if I’m totally honest, I didn’t really learn a huge amount from that). Worse, I knew nothing at all about the Women’s Training Scheme or the so-called Idle Women, who left their comfortable homes and stepped up to take charge of the working boats during World War II. And I have a feeling I may not be the only one.

Fortunately, Alarum Theatre are setting out to change that. They’re embarking on a tour with their historic boat, Tench, and an all-female crew to mark the 75th anniversary of the Idle Women by recreating their route from London to Birmingham and back via Coventry, performing at waterside venues along the way.

The double bill consists of two solo performances by writer and storyteller Kate Saffin and poet and singer-songwriter Heather Wastie, who met on Twitter in 2016 and realised their two shows went rather well together. The first, Isobel’s War, is a fictional and often very funny depiction of the arduous training scheme through the eyes of one of the recruits, while Idle Women and Judies is a collection of poems and songs inspired by, and often directly quoting, the words of the women themselves. Both give us an insight into the hard work and less than comfortable living conditions on board – but also the friendships and sense of accomplishment that the women shared.

Though not exactly your typical night at the theatre, together the two pieces make for a simple, charming and informative evening. And though the performances are quite different in format, they have one important thing in common, and that’s the obvious affection and admiration not just for the Idle Women, but for all the women from boating families who’d been quietly doing the same work for generations before the war. The enthusiasm of both ladies, who come from boating backgrounds themselves, is infectious; even someone as averse to audience participation as I am couldn’t resist joining in with the final chorus (though I wish it hadn’t been quite so catchy – it’s a difficult one to forget once you’ve learnt it).

If you don’t already know the story of the Idle Women, Alarum’s show is a fascinating introduction. If you do, it’s an enjoyable retelling and great entertainment. But it’s also a powerful reminder of the crucial role women played in keeping the country running during the war – and let’s face it, nothing brightens a gloomy Monday like a bit of girl power.

But if it was such hard work on the boats, why were they called the Idle Women? You may well ask – but I’m not the one to answer. You’ll have to see the show to find out…

The Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways continues on the Recreating the Journey: 2017 tour – for dates and venues visit the Alarum Theatre website.